Name: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Number of Pages: 410 (Paperback)
Published: October 5th 2017 by Del Rey
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.
But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods… – from Goodreads
I was so sad to reach the end of The Bear and the Nightingale. The only positive thing about finishing this book is that I can now write about how wonderful the story is.
I came upon this book quite by accident; when it first came out somehow it passed me by, and it was the elegant, striking cover of the paperback that caught my eye.
Sometimes it’s a case of finding the right book at the right time, and that was true here, because as I was reading the snow and ice arrived, and I could sit inside, immersed in this vivid winter-world. It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
So, the story…
It’s a magical, dark fairytale with a spirited, brave heroine, dark spirits lurking in the forest, an alluring but dangerous frost demon, and so much more.
It is an atmospheric, slow burning tale, and one that you can get really lost in quickly.
Out in the wilds of a village near the woods, Vasilisa and her family live as generations before them did; they appease the household spirits, who each protect hearth and home, horses and stables, and the surrounding area, and the lot for women is either marriage or the convent, so fairly limited.
But Vasya is special. She can actually see these spirits, which no one else can, and befriends them, from the water-dwelling rusalka to the vazila, the guardian of the stable and horses, and the little domovoi, who sometimes smoulders away in the oven as he watches over the household.
Vasya’s difference becomes more of an issue when her father remarries and brings Anna into the family home, for Anna can see the spirits too, but reacts with horror and fear, rather than the fascination that Vasya shows. She wants the spirits and Vasya gone, and wonders whether seeing such things is a sign of madness in both herself and her step-daughter.
What Anna fails to acknowledge is that the household spirits may offer protection for all against the far worse things lingering within the forest, just waiting for an opportunity to gain strength.
Another newcomer arrives in the village. Father Konstantin preaches that the old spirits are not to be indulged any more. He whips up fear and suspicion amongst the people, encouraging them to cease making offerings to the spirits.
Vasya holds a fascination for him that is repellent to him but undeniable, so as Anna schemes to have Vasya sent away, and whispers around the village call Vasya a witch, Konstantin becomes involved in her departure – if Vasya is not there, then he doesn’t have to face his true feelings for her.
There is so much real-world intrigue going on here, and the dynamics are exciting, but then we come to the otherworldly, and here the book really takes off, as Vasya develops friendships with the spirits, and communicates with horses until they teach her to ride beyond anything any would expect, which leads to an exciting moment when a suitor arrives to claim Vasya as his wife.
She is wild and free, and neither marriage or the convent are ever going to be the path that Vasya takes. She’s brave and resilient, and I loved her straight away.
She also catches the eye of two rather fierce demons, the Bear, who means to be free, and his brother the frost-demon.
I’m not going to spoil too much here, but I loved each and every scene that Vasya and Morozko shared. Just brilliant. Their dynamic was so good; she’s never too afraid to stand up to him, even when he’s terrifying and she knows she’s risking death. And him, well, he’s testing her to see how brave she is.
The Bear and the Nightingale is magical and engrossing, the perfect winter read, so if you haven’t already, definitely try to pick it up soon. There’s also the added bonus that the next book, The Girl in the Tower has just been published, so you won’t even have to wait for the next story. I’ll be reading it as soon as I get my hands on a copy!